Preseason Bud Shootout can tell you plenty

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The NFL bores us to tears each summer with more than a month of preseason games featuring players who won't be in the league come mid-September.

Major League Baseball teams play 30 or so spring games that most players consider a glorified fitness program.

NASCAR does it a little differently.

Only one preseason event. More than $1 million on the line. The sport's biggest stars going for it on NASCAR's top venue.

Now that's an exhibition season fans can appreciate.

The Bud Shootout on Saturday night at Daytona doesn't count toward who wins the 2007 championship, but it does start the season with a show where the competitors are going all-out to win.

In fact, it's more about winning than the 36 points-paying races. It's a chance to show what you've got and make your sponsors proud.

This year, 21 drivers are eligible to compete -- 15 pole winners from 2006 and six former Bud Shootout winners. The field includes nine of the 10 Chase competitors from last season, along with two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart.

The 70-lap show isn't a test run to see who can make your team. It's a real event with big money -- more than $200,000 -- awaiting the winner.

The NFL should take note. How about one preseason game for each team? Winning teams get a few million bucks to split; losers, nothing. There's a preseason weekend I'd watch.

A major league team's ace tossing three innings in a Class A park and hitting the showers before hitting golf balls doesn't tell me much.

But watching rookie Denny Hamlin bump draft with the best and win last year's Bud Shootout -- his first Cup race at Daytona -- told me a lot.

"That was a great boost to our team," said Hamlin, who went on to make the Chase and finish third in the standings. "Winning the Bud Shootout will mean a lot to me the rest of my career."

That's the point. It means something. No one is going through the motions at the expense of the ticket buyers. No starting quarterback is playing two series then taking a powder.

"Points don't matter and second place means nothing," said Mark Martin, who will compete in a record-extending 19th consecutive Bud Shootout. "You have everyone out there really going for it all and trying to get the win."

This Shootout has added intrigue because it's the first race for two of the Toyota teams. Dale Jarrett and Brian Vickers will see what they can do in the new Camrys.

"It's going to be fun to see exactly what we have," Jarrett said.

If Jarrett or Vickers win Saturday, Ford team owner Jack Roush, who already said he is "going to war" with Toyota, might put on fatigues and dig a foxhole on the infield grass.

Past Shootout results often were a good predictor of things to come.

Five times, the Shootout winner has taken the checkered flag in the big race one week later. Jarrett has three Shootout wins. Two of those years (1996 and 2000), he went on to win the Daytona 500.

Since its inception in 1979, the Shootout winner became the Cup champion that season seven times. Sounds significant to me. It's preseason the way it ought to be.

Only one problem. The drama on Saturday night is followed by the most tranquilizing day of Speedweeks -- Pole Day for the Daytona 500.

The traffic outside on International Boulevard offers more thrills than cars with choked-off engines taking the track one at a time on the enormous 2.5-mile oval.

It's mash the gas and hold the wheel. As Stewart once said, "A monkey could do it."

The track is so big, and one car so comparatively small, that the two laps with restricted engines look like they're happening in slow motion.

And it takes forever to make 60 or so qualifying attempts. All that boredom and only two spots are determined for the 500.

The top two qualifiers start on the front row. Everyone else is earning a starting position for the qualifying races on Thursday.

It's a colossal waste of three hours on a Sunday afternoon, but there is a way to fix it. Give the pole winner five points to start the season.

And while you're at it, give every pole winner five points so qualifying each week becomes something worth watching.

It won't happen this year, so you have to take the good with the bad on the first weekend of the season. But at least both events have more significance than preseason games in other sports.

And NASCAR's preseason is only one week removed from the biggest event of the year.

Call it immediate gratification. For any fan with a short attention span, it's the perfect way to start.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.